Puppets of Madness! Cthulhu’s Musical Invasion at Canal Club Tonight

by | Jul 3, 2024 | ART, COMEDY, DOWNTOWN RVA, PERFORMING ARTS

Puppets have long been used as a storytelling device across multiple platforms. A Christmas Carol, various childhood franchises from the ’80s and ’90s, and now even… Cthulhu?

This week, the classic H.P. Lovecraft story comes to life in the form of a musical with puppets. Based in Ashland, Oregon, the theater troupe Puppeteers for Fears is a puppetry-based troupe that performs various original musicals and plays such as Cattle Mutilation: The Musical and Ritual Murder: The Musical, among others in their repertoire. The concept for Cthulhu happened purely by accident when a stranger overheard Josh Gross, the founder of Puppeteers for Fears, talking about the idea with his girlfriend and asked him when it was playing.

He responded offhand with “Later this year” and realized he was committed. The stars continued to align when, on a whim, he recognized a local actor in a bar. It turns out she had taken a one-semester puppetry class to prepare for a production of Avenue Q.

Talk about perfect timing.

“I just sort of monologued at her and gave her the whole spiel, and it turned out that she had studied puppetry in college because the university theater program in Ashland, Oregon, where we’re from, had been doing a production of Avenue Q,” said Gross. “They did a one-semester puppetry class to prep students for doing Avenue Q, and she had taken that class. So I just tapped the right person on the shoulder out of dumb luck. She called some people from her theater class, and I got members of my old high school band together, and we just sort of came together and did this very tentative sort of thing. It was supposed to be a one-night show. And that one-night show was just called Puppeteers for Fears. It was the three shorts that I had written, but it was such a big success that we were like, it was this tiny little place that seats like 60 people maybe, and there were 130 through the door. They were sitting five deep on the floor. They laughed, and the whole room shook. It was actually very unsafe and quite terrifying. But at the end of it, everyone just kept walking up to us and saying, ‘Thank you for doing literally anything different.’ And we were like, okay, I guess we struck a nerve here. Let’s try this again.”

From there, they began forming the troupe, ending up with folks who just happened to have the skills they needed at the time, such as the wife of a friend who was a seamstress. They started with two shows a year and set about making two new shows every year going forward. The first piece they performed during this time was the aforementioned Cattle Mutilation: The Musical, which was about Bigfoot and UFOs and set to surf rock of all things. After that was the bread and butter, Cthulhu: The Musical, which they ultimately decided to tour to new areas such as the East Coast because it had its own built-in marketing due to its cult following.

The first stop on Cthulhu’s public outing? The Hollywood Fringe Festival, of course.

“We were kind of starting to outgrow places at that point, so we needed to figure out what to do. That’s when we started cycling on the road and we decided to take Cthulhu to the Hollywood Fringe Festival because it’s the best piece to go to somewhere we haven’t been before since it has kind of its own marketing, you know, by being H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and all that,” said Gross. “We went and did it in Portland for one weekend first to see if it would work as a roadshow. Then we went and did it at the Hollywood Fringe, and then turned it into a big tour, traveled all around, and it just kept growing. Then from that point on, we were like, ‘Okay, I guess we tour now and that’s what we do,’ and we just kept doing road shows after that.”

The troupe itself grew by word of mouth, calling up various friends as they began expanding to more shows and then open auditions. However, for the most part, Puppeteers for Fears tends to work with mostly the same folks, with roles being filled in here and there. Gross shared that it was, in its own way, like a more wholesome mafia. When you’re in, you’re in (for as long as you genuinely want to be).

Everyone has their own full-time jobs outside of the troupe, until it’s showtime, in which case it becomes its own full-time gig. Gross admitted that joining the troupe itself is truly less about “Can you do a certain role in the group?” and more about “Can I tolerate you for six months in a van?”

“It’s like you can do one big tour a year or something like that, and then that’s everyone’s like, ‘That’s it. I gotta, like, take a minute,’” said Gross. “Then we go back to our corners, and in some ways, I think that’s actually really good because it’s so up close and intimate that everyone gets on everyone’s last nerve by the end of it. Then we just go, ‘Okay, great. I won’t see you again for six months.’ I think that to some degree helps preserve it.”

While Gross remains the primary writer for the group’s work, he discusses how the process of looking for ideas usually involves looking for monsters they like a lot that don’t necessarily have a previous backstory. With something like Bigfoot, he could be absolutely anything, which adds to the fun of making a puppet for something like him as opposed to an everyday human. It adds to the joy of it.

“What is a thing that people like that [people are] interested in, but it doesn’t necessarily have a story attached? Like Cthulhu is an interesting one because Cthulhu has a story, right? So that one, we actually had to adapt the story,” said Gross. “Robots are a fun one. I mean, we got one about lake monsters we’re working on. I had one about a cloned mammoth. It’s the thing that people are interested in, but it doesn’t really have a story that’s attached to it, so it’s just looking for things that are iconic, but not necessarily like, this happens and this happens and this happens. Then you have to kind of go through and find what are the songs and this and that. Does it suggest a musical style? You know what I mean? Cthulhu sort of suggested nautical [the musical style]. It suggested some of the reverbs and things that sort of sound like water, like surf music sort of stuff.”

I mentioned offhand when Gross admitted that he had never visited Richmond before that he could not have picked a better place to do a show akin to this. He laughed when I mentioned the now infamous Gun Hole Saga that gripped the city in a chokehold and agreed that we were the place for them, which was comforting since he mentioned describing what they were to their booking agent felt a little challenging before finally settling on “anywhere that would do burlesque would probably do well.”

“He was like, so it’s a band. We’re like, yes, but not really,” said Gross. “He’s like, so it’s a theater company. We’re like, no. Yes, but not really. We sort of exist in between. I think that’s part of the charm. We like to think of it as bringing theater to people who didn’t yet realize that they liked theater because they hadn’t been given a reason to. We like to think of it as bringing a big, loud rock and roll show to folks who just feel like they’d rather sit down than stand. It’s this nice sort of in-between ground, where it’s just sort of like, imagine a rock and roll show, but the in-between song banter is a story.”

Cthulhu-The-Musical-at-Canal-Club_by-Ash-Griffith_RVA-Magazine-2024

Cthulhu: The Musical by Puppeteers for Fears will be performed at The Canal Club on Wednesday, July 3rd at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 on the day of the show. For more information, visit thecanalclub.com or puppeteersforfears.com.

Ash Griffith

Ash Griffith

Ash is a writer and improviser from Richmond. She has a BA in English from VCU and an associates in Theater. When she isn't writing or screaming on a stage, she can usually be found wherever the coffee is. Bill Murray is her favorite person along with her black cat, Bruce.




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